Digital and insight lessons Anytime Fitness' CMO is taking from the COVID-19 crisis

Marketing leader for the gym chain talks through the digital and customer engagement innovations launched during the height of the pandemic and how they can fuel long-term member experience success

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Personalisation, less intimation and collecting frequent customer insights are among the takeaways of the COVID-19 crisis for the CMO of Collective Wellness Group, Emily Thompson.

Speaking to CMO following the launch of the ‘24/7 Human’ campaign for the group’s Anytime Fitness brand, Thompson said a lot of marketing during the crisis has been about engagement and soliciting more feedback.

“We haven’t done enough of that in the past with members. I think we’ve done more of that in the last three months than in the last three years,” she said. “It’s something we will continue to do so we’re more in touch and data-driven.”

Like many retail, hospitality and physical experience-based brands, Anytime Fitness was forced to shut its doors in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that didn’t mean shutting down engagement with members. If anything, finding ways to connect become even more critical.

For one, information-based communication has been vital. “We’ve seen it with closing and reopening the gyms - members want to know what is going on,” Thompson said. “You’ve seen it within workplaces, and in the way we need to keep employees working from home in the loop, too. How we could keep everyone in that loop, including our franchisees, and heading on the same journey, has been key.”

To do this, steps Anytime Fitness took early on included calling to check-in with members, and creating an online Facebook group.

“We have 570,000 members, and we had been expecting a six-month closure. We had to keep people engaged if they were to come back to us; keeping connected is essential,” Thompson said.  

Supporting these efforts was a national marketing fund and council. Having underspent in some areas, Thompson said the team was able to pivot funding to support other initiatives.

One such innovation was building a digital platform in the first week. While Anytime Fitness previously offered a couple of workout apps as part of its global brand, the homegrown digital platform born out of the COVID-19 crisis was much more. Features included workout plans and lifestyle classes designed for members at home, along with nutrition and educational content and a health check capability.

“We built that early on and complemented it with a series of live workouts daily. People want that group to do activities with as it helps with accountability and sharing that connection. And we will continue to run that as we come out of the crisis,” Thompson said.

A further innovation was an online personal training platform so Anytime’s trainers could continue to train individuals remotely. This initiative was again led by the marketing team and is one expected to remain as gyms reopen.

Thompson’s ambition now is to align digital innovation with the wider physical business offering in order to provide more personalised member experiences post-COVID-19. To help, Collective Wellness is reviewing the technology stack supporting the business to ensure it’s able to support the next 6-12 months.

“Personalisation is huge for our business. As an insight, we know everyone’s fitness journey is individual, and health needs and routines are different,” she said. “Up to now, our emphasis has not been about that. The big focus moving forward is on being smarter around our data.”  

Like many franchise businesses, digital can be a challenging sell to those reliant on physical member visits in their local area. But it was clear Anytime Fitness operators saw digital’s value during the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson said. And they agree innovations unleashed during the crisis will only improve the brand’s overall member offering long-term.

“Having seen people’s behaviour across digital, franchise owners are conscious of the value of these products,” she said. “It’s the same with our personal trainers – this has enabled them to train more people and be more successful.”  

Marketing lessons in a crisis

While there’s no doubt the crisis has been tough, Thompson said it’s been a huge opportunity to reflect on how Anytime Fitness had been doing things and what was perceived as ‘normal’.

“Things can at times get overcomplicated in marketing, and this has been an opportunity to strip that back and give people what they are looking for,” she said. “The length of the closure was going to be a deciding factor in what would happen long-term. But the positives have been overwhelming. Seeing how humans got together and got through it has been fantastic.

“We’ve seen members and franchise owners – our two customers – so engaged, and our franchisees have been taking the time to look at what at great member experience is. What ‘good’ looks like for these two customers is a big focus. As much as this has been a crisis, it’s also been pleasant to take stock of everything that’s going on.”

It’s even seen franchisees and marketers embracing new channels, such as TikTok. “Many clubs had been struggling with TikTok, for example, but as we have been closed, they’ve taken time to get used to that and we’ve gained a lot of engagement from that channel,” Thompson said. “People are looking for entertainment and engagement, so our teams embraced it.”

Moving forward, Thompson noted an emphasis on building out Anytime Fitness’ content strategy and meeting members where they want to be met. And as has been indicated by the ‘24/7 Human’ campaign, the human element will be front and centre to everything Anytime Fitness does as we enter the ‘new normal’.

“We had the opportunity as we reopen the doors and run awareness campaigns around how clean we are – that was the safety and easy option, which would have instilled confidence in members to come back,” Thompson commented. “But for us it’s more than that – it’s taking feedback and insights we were seeing and the conversations we were having with members.

“We could sit and focus on hygiene or the convenience of a 24-hour gym, or we could talk about what’s really important, which is the human connection.”

Research undertaken by Anytime Fitness late last year indicated the overwhelming perception of 24/7 gyms is they’re faceless rooms full of equipment that are often unstaffed. What’s more, many see them as young, male-dominated environments. The reality is members go from 16 years old to 75 years old, while there’s more than 3000 staff working in Anytime Fitness gyms.

Another insight to come out of this crisis is that health is more important than ever - and it’s more than just fitness, Thompson said.

“We are trying to encompass that and trying to remove that intimidation factor for people in coming to our gyms,” she said. “That human need to be included and to feel part of a group - gyms are doing that for a lot of people in their communities.

“Internally, this insight will influence our photography choices, language, tone of voice, brand and more. We need to be more human.”

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